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Solar Santa 

Joel Hayes doesn't drive a sleigh pulled by reindeer, but like Santa, he's on a mission from the North Pole (well, as close as he could get) to spread cheer, hope, and inspiration.

His sleigh is a camper van he designed and built with a small team of visionaries, who launched Route Del Sol, a project to be the first 100 percent sun-powered electric van to travel from the Arctic Circle to Tierra Del Fuego.

"Our goal is to start conversations that we hope will stimulate climate awareness and change," Hayes said when we chatted in my backyard.

Like hundreds of folks he has met on the road, my curiosity was piqued when Hayes parked down the street from my house to "refuel." That curiosity leads to conversations about solar power, electric vehicles, the energy sector, and climate change.

You can hardly ignore this ingenious vehicle. The roof and two sections support 24 330W flexible solar panels. When deployed, the solar arrays unfold like wings to transform a normal van into something out of Star Wars. To maximize efficiency, the vehicle has a tracking system that tilts the array at a 45-degree angle to track the sun. In direct sunlight, it takes approximately 20 hours to fully charge the batteries. So, Hayes has lots of downtime to distribute his gift of inspiration in this season of climate despair and anxiety.

I wanted to know, first, why Hayes, a 29-year-old Australian ecologist, put aside his career to embark on what some might call a quixotic expedition that has already taken more than six years, including five years to discover partners, fundraise, design, and build the van. What compels Hayes—much like Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg—to devote his life to a cause that may already be lost?

"I grew up in Tweedsheads, Australia, in a topsy-turvy family because I lost my mom at 7, and my dad at 17," Hayes said. "When I wasn't out in nature, I watched Widget the World Watcher, a cartoon about environmentalism. I became self-reliant, and, against odds, earned a bachelor's degree in climate change adaptation and eco-tourism."

Hayes became an eco-traveler himself, working around the hemisphere as a scuba instructor here, a wildlife controller there. When he became aware that flying accounts for 11 percent of all transportation-related emissions in the U.S., Hayes conceived of a peripatetic, emission-free solar-powered journey that could teach by example.

"If you look at any report from the IPCC [U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], especially the most recent one, you cannot deny the existential threat to our planet," Hayes said. "I want people to realize through Route Del Sol that it's not impossible to change, that governments and politicians cannot say that it can't be done. We are not powerless in the face of this crisis."

Once Hayes began reaching out to find others interested in his idea, he found a community of supporters. "I came across an engineer, Bret Belan, who lives in Ashland, Oregon, and builds renewably powered vehicles," he said. "I emailed him and told him I was deadly serious about this project, and he invited me to come live with his family while we put the van together."

I'd like to pause for a moment to celebrate the power of individuals to build communities, and to incite change. Hayes admits that his project and journey are tough physically and mentally.

"It takes a whole lot of energy and effort," he said, "but it's the right thing to do."

And he has sparked climate conversations from Alaska to Mexico.

Likewise, Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager, started on a course of action to mitigate her feeling of powerlessness and as an antidote to climate grief. The survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting inspired her to take up a sign and protest governments' apathy and refusal to halt carbon emissions.

"I promised myself I was going to do everything I could do to make a difference," she said in an interview for Time magazine.

A year later, Thunberg's one-person weekly protest has turned into a worldwide movement of millions, and Time named her Person of the Year.

And you know who is gnashing his teeth? The Grinch in the White House, of course, a man who so craves the limelight that he actually hung copies of a framed, fake cover of Time with his photo in his golf resorts. Trump is so immature and so threatened by a child who speaks truth to power that he responded to Times' Person of the Year announcement by throwing a Twitter fit. Our 73-year-old president actually mocked a 16-year-old schoolgirl.

Let's not hold out hope that his Grinch-like "two sizes too small" heart will suddenly expand. Thunberg and Hayes aren't waiting for that Christmas miracle.

"Continue to work, continue," Pope Francis said to Greta.

And godspeed to Hayes, who will work his way to Tierra del Fuego by August. If we mimic their courage, we too will find people who are supportive and ready to change.

"The beauty I've discovered is that the world is full of kind people who want goodness in our lives and future," Hayes said.

To follow and support Route Del Sol, see Δ

Amy Hewes is a grassroots activist. Send comments through the editor at

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